Joe Posnanski moved to State College, Pa., to write a much different book from the one he ended up writing.
Posnanski, a former Kansas City Star sports columnist, imagined his
And then everything changed. In November,
And so Posnanski found himself in the midst of a very different book, one that exists in a kind of limbo between his original goal of portraying what made Paterno tick and the natural reporter's goal of staying abreast of a developing story.
Posnanski has done his best. In that USA Today column, he wrote that the "book, I believe, lets the reader make up his or her own mind."
If only the book had let me make up my mind. Posnanski's "Paterno," which arrived Aug. 21, has complicated the issues of the Penn State story, re-enraged me and left me with at least as many questions as before.
"Paterno" is structured, exquisitely, as a five-act tragic
Throughout, Posnanski avoids the pitfalls of the worst sports biographies: game results. Posnanski treads lightly, mentioning only pertinent highlights from particularly big games. And Posnanski's storytelling is as fluid as ever. But among the frustrations, a casual follower of this story might be surprised to learn from Posnanski's book that Paterno and Sandusky were not friends; their relationship seems to have been a symbiosis of barely suppressed enmity. Posnanski mentions what the family calls Paterno's "Why I Hate Jerry Sandusky" memo, written in 1993, but does not quote from it. The gist seems to be that Paterno thought Sandusky had lost his fire for coaching.
If that were the case, a reader wonders, why did Paterno wait another five years to tell Sandusky he would not be head coach?
According to the independent investigation led by former
Except, well, it seems he might have. The Freeh Report includes, and Posnanski mentions, a one-line email from May 1998. Athletic director
Let's pause here. In Posnanski's words, Paterno told the grand jury he "had never heard another rumor about Sandusky, but admitted that things could have been said in his presence that he had forgotten."
Men in their early 80s do forget things. But it strains credulity to believe that Paterno, whose players often praised his remarkable memory for details, forgot allegations of pederasty involving an employee.
This is one of many contradictions that begin to trouble the reader. Posnanski deliberately does not dwell on Sandusky and the scandal, preferring to keep his attention squarely on Paterno.
Two illustrative vignettes bookend Posnanski's tale. Early on, Posnanski tells a Paterno family story: At a restaurant many years ago, one of the coach's daughters ordered an all-you-can-eat salad. Another daughter snatched a slice of cucumber off her sister's plate. The coach accused her of stealing from the restaurant's owners.
This story is meant to show that everything mattered to Paterno.
The second vignette comes at the book's end: In November, Paterno and his crisis team were meeting about the statement they planned to release. Paterno takes issue not with its substance but with the phrase that states he went "to work every day for the last sixty-one years."
"Well, I didn't come to work every day," Paterno says. "I was sick a couple of days ... and there were other things."
It's a punch line, but a rueful one. By this time, the little things are very much beside the point.
Sebastian Stockman is a Missouri native teaching in the writing, literature and publishing department at Emerson College in Boston.
By Joe Posnanski